England: A peak at Keira

By Rebecca Barry Hill

Following in a film star's footsteps is a good way to get to know the Peak District, writes Rebecca Barry.

Chatsworth House in Derbyshire in the Peak District has been used as the backdrop in many major films, including The Duchess and Wolfman. Photo / visitpeakdistrict.com
Chatsworth House in Derbyshire in the Peak District has been used as the backdrop in many major films, including The Duchess and Wolfman. Photo / visitpeakdistrict.com

I'm starting to feel like a stalker. It's not enough that I'm staying in the hotel Keira Knightley made her home while shooting The Duchess, the film about the celebrated 18th century socialite Lady Georgiana Spencer. My room at the luxurious Peacock Rowsley in Derbyshire - or so the enthusiastic porter exclaimed when I checked in - is next to the room she stayed in.

Natalie Portman, Scarlett Johansson, Eric Bana and Kristin Scott Thomas have also kicked back at this former 1820s fishing hotel, built in 1652. Meanwhile, I've got the room Judi Dench's PA spent seven weeks in while the Dame shot Pride and Prejudice in 2005. Talk about VIP.

I seem to be retracing Knightley's steps around the Peak District: the grand estates where she filmed The Duchess, a vine-covered medieval hall where she filmed Pride and Prejudice. All that flouncing around in corsets and wigs required a suitably elegant backdrop, and the British national park in Derbyshire, with its rolling green fields, endless stone walls and stately homes cut the (English) mustard.

"Keira was so small and slim it was amazing," says the guide manning the foyer at Chatsworth House. "She didn't get it right running down the stairs so she had to do it several times."

Chatsworth, owned by the present-day Duke and Duchess of Devonshire, has played the backdrop for many big British films over the years. Shooting recently wrapped on the Sir Anthony Hopkins and Benicio del Toro thriller, Wolfman, when the historic home became a house of horrors with the help of fake weeds, dead grass and ivy. Today it's the opposite of gloomy - many visitors have taken to paddling their feet in the elegant water feature, which trickles down the hill.

The 14,000ha estate, with its magnificent maze hedge, ancient furniture and painted rooms is a film-maker's dream that must come with a hefty insurance policy. During The Duchess, Georgiana's wedding took place in the chapel where so many candles blazed there were concerns the room would overheat. The guide still can't believe a garden scene that took three days to shoot was cut from the film altogether.

If the Duke and Duchess were worried about opening up their precious abode to a bunch of strangers, they didn't let on, even though the surprisingly homely estate houses an art collection passed down through 16 generations. They are happy for the public to traipse through it, our local Blue Badge guide Joan says, as we pass through tasteful rooms, decorated with ornate Chinese wallpaper, paintings by the old masters, detailed oak panels, Renaissance jewels and backlit, modern artworks - and an exquisite, ruby-pink dining hall.

As we continue our Keira-thon, it becomes clear why Derbyshire is so popular with film-makers: it's an old-English time capsule that has retained its environmental beauty, cultural history ... and narrow roads. It might have been easier to get around in a horse and cart because some of the roads are so narrow we can barely squeeze the rental car through.

On the drive to Tissington, Joan's favourite village, we pass through Eyam, a picturesque spot famous for being the first place in England to report the outbreak of the Great Plague in 1665. Then the roads open out toward the sweeping vistas of Monsal Dale, where we stop to admire the view, an old railway cutting through the valley, where episodes of Peak Practice were filmed.

And after paying homage to Robin Hood with a visit to (what is thought to be) Little John's grave in Hathersage, (parts of Pride and Prejudice were also filmed here at Stanage Edge) we continue through Ashford-in-the-Water where the locals continue the practise of well-dressing. This ancient custom - believed to have started as a way of expressing gratitude for clean water during the plague outbreak - is unique to the Peak District and surrounding areas; decorating the wells in petals can involve the entire village.

Tissington doesn't disappoint. The township's Duke is trying to tempt film-makers to make the most of its pretty gardens, beautiful homes and majestic landmark, Tissington Hall, built in 1609. Tissington is one of few remaining privately-owned villages left in Britain, and with no road markings, street lighting or external noise it's a popular place to film period pieces. The Hall has accommodated film crews from BBC's Jane Eyre, Peak Practice and Antiques Roadshow - and whaddya know, Keira stayed here too while shooting The Duchess. The Hall also featured in Most Haunted, as some say the ghost of Wilhelmina Fitzherbert, an ancestor of the present owner Sir Richard Fitzherbert, died due to severe burns in 1862.

The next morning I feel as though I'm starring in my own period drama as I wake to the scent of woodsmoke (and a hint of cow dung) wafting through the bedroom window. The hotel's semi-rural setting means you can eat your pomegranate confit and bircher muesli in a garden fit for a duchess.

But I doubt petite Keira would have visited nearby Bakewell when she stayed here. After quizzing Joan on Derbyshire's specialty foods the previous day, she promptly announced we'd head to the small market town of Bakewell for a taste of the famous Bakewell pudding, the most decadent jam and egg pastry ever invented - although legend has it the cook accidentally invented it by mucking up another dish in 1820.

We burn off this deliciously gooey morning tea with a stroll through Dovedale, where parts of the latest Robin Hood flick starring Russell Crowe were filmed. The stunning landscape known as Thorpe Pastures and Lindale, which stretches down the region's famous Stepping Stones across the River Dove, provided the backdrop for the film's closing scenes, in which 140 men on horses charged up and down the dale. On this scorching spring day the bubbling river is lined with families picnicking and exercising their dogs.

Then it's on to Kedleston Hall which The Duchess crew used to portray scenes set in the Spencer family home in Althorp, Devonshire house in London and a villa in Bath. Neoclassical architect Robert Adam set out to build an 18th century house that would rival Chatsworth, intending its Roman columns and high ceilings as more as an entertainment and shrine to the arts than a family home. He managed that in terms of grandness of scale although this feels more austere ... I'd rather live at Chatsworth.

Sir Nathanial Curzon, 1st Lord Scarsdale, whose family have lived on the estate since the time of William the Conqueror had the old-fashioned equivalent of OCD; all the Italian paintings and doorways are perfectly symmetrical.

The guide manning the hall's grand entrance beams when asked about The Duchess star Ralph Fiennes, who played Georgiana's husband, William, replied: "Absolutely charming". She looked a bit lovestruck.

And Keira? "Um. Not as warm".

What was warm was the hall itself, decorated with 150 candles designed not to drip excessively onto the marble floors. A scene in which Georgiana's wig catches fire had to be choreographed to ensure the grape juice that extinguishes it was mopped up immediately.

After checking out an exhibition of the costumes used in the film, we head to the last, and most impressive, of Keira's haunts, where she filmed Pride and Prejudice. Haddon Hall is the go-to location for many other period dramas too: Jane Eyre, The Princess Bride, Elizabeth, and The Other Boleyn Girl. It's nearly empty when we arrive, giving it a suitably eerie feel: it stood empty for 200 years so almost nothing has been altered from when it was last inhabited in 1650.

The kitchen was state-of-the-art for its time, with a huge working oven which plucky chefs put to the test when they recreated a Tudor-style feast of deer, wild boar and pheasant for a BBC documentary. One of the most exquisite rooms is the banquet hall, which has all its original Tudor furnishings. But film-makers haven't been shy about using specific rooms for other purposes. The dining hall was used as a study in Jane Eyre, the billiards room has been used as a green room and the long gallery has been dressed differently for several films. Most notably it was used in Elizabeth with Cate Blanchett. But even the Queen wasn't allowed to sit on the ancient chairs. The Duchess would surely approve.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Cathay Pacific offers daily flights from Auckland to London via Hong Kong.

Where to stay: The Peacock at Rowsley, Derbyshire, built in 1652, is a taste of old-fashioned luxury (with chocolate-coated strawberries on arrival). Recently acquired by Lord Edward Manners, owner of the historic Haddon Hall, the hotel was refurbished and styled by Paris-based designer India Mahdavi.

Where to eat: The Peacock's restaurant is renowned for its fine-dining, with an adventurous dinner menu that includes pigeon, Derbyshire rib-eye, eel and rabbit. Head to nearby Bakewell for a traditional Bakewell pudding - not to be confused with the Bakewell tart. There are three bakeries in the village, each claiming to have the original secret recipe. Our guide Joan recommended The Old Original Pudding Shop. Check out the Bakewell Farmers' Market on the last Saturday of every month.

What to do: Take a driving tour of the region with a registered Blue Badge guide for a detailed history of the Peak District as you visit its stately homes, Chatsworth House, Kedleston Hall and Haddon Hall.

FURTHER INFORMATION

visitbritain.com
visitpeakdistrict.com
nationaltrust.org.uk
blue-badge-guides.com

Rebecca Barry travelled to the Peak District in Derbyshire courtesy of Cathay Pacific and Visit Britain.

- NZ Herald

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